On first encountering John Huston’s old prospector, Howard (Walter Huston), in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), our immediate impression is one of sheer delectation. Howard is wisdom personified. He is also a fine example of the Socratic dictum, “know thyself.”
Howard represents that rare form of contentment that is more readily found in literature than is often exercised by people in real life. He guides the viewer through a meticulous rendering of how avarice debilitates its victims — this, regardless of the latter’s treachery and craftiness. Howard reminds us of what Havelock Ellis has to say about morals in The Dance of Life: “There is no separating pain and pleasure without making the first meaningless for all vital ends and the second turn to ashes. To exalt the meaning of pain; and we cannot understand the meaning of pain unless we understand the place of pleasure in the art of life.” (1)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre employs themes that are much more complicated than we are first led to believe. The moralizing that takes place in the film is ruled by a spirited, categorical thought which demonstrates how intemperance breeds the seed of its own destruction. John Huston is not interested in depicting particular examples of avarice, but rather avarice itself. Avarice – a universal human character trait – is the major theme of the film. The great appeal of the film is that Huston allows Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) to destroy himself without having to resort to anything less than universally recognized values.
Along with avarice, Huston also explores envy, and perhaps most importantly, temperance, a character trait that is the central topic of discussion in Plato’s Charmides. (2) One of the reasons that the film has enjoyed such a great success is that these topics are not treated in isolation, as if existing in a vacuum.
For instance, temperance plays a direct role in the outcome of all the characters. We witness this not only in those who are intemperate, but also in the effects that this has in the lives of others. The vital interplay of the characters in the film, as they would interact in real life, is a refreshing cinematic perspective that ends in a cathartic resolution. Huston grounds the drama in a fine understanding of human reality. Real life situations serve as the foundation of the behaviour that we witness in the film.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a two-dimensional, visual fable of human existence. Fables are an essential source of understanding because they confront us with fundamental truths. Also, fables remind us that all our actions and their consequences are the result of our perspective or the lack thereof. While the focus of the film might be Dobbs’ self-destruction, the essential motivation for his destruction nevertheless retains universal appeal and validity.
Of course, Dobbs’ potential salvation remains an open question. To this we must add that avarice cannot exist without the interaction of some key players, events, and circumstances. Hence the overriding effect of the film is to demonstrate the correlation that exists between wisdom and temperance. Again, the proximity between these two human traits makes us wonder if Dobbs can be saved under any circumstances. When confronted by wisdom, Fred C. Dobbs antagonizes Howard in the only manner that a fool can: he struggles against himself.
Perhaps the most effective way to make sense of the impact of this film is to view it as a fable. While it remains true that fables often make use of animals to demonstrate a lesson, this is only the case because the fable is designed to teach young people a valuable moral lesson. In the absence of personified animals, Huston instead utilizes men, a mountain, some bandits, and the passage of time. Huston, I believe, employs the very same staples of the fable, except that adults often make for very bad students when learning fundamental truths.
Allegory is a powerful teaching tool that removes us from the myopia that often comes about through the immediacy of the human condition. Man’s proximity to himself can be his greatest nemesis. The beauty of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is its ability to showcase how wisdom is often shunned for the rewards of instant pleasures or simply because it is often met by deaf ears. Howard is a teacher. Lessons are not made any truer because the teacher initiates them, but rather because the teacher acts as intermediary between the pupil and truth. Ideally, the best pupil is the one that seeks the teacher. Consider what Karl Jaspers writes about Socrates; this can easily be applied to Howard:
Socrates does not hand down wisdom but makes the other find it. The other thinks he knows, but Socrates makes him aware of his ignorance, so leading him to find authentic knowledge in himself. From miraculous depths this man raises up what he already knew, but without knowing that he knew it. This means that each man must find knowledge in himself; it is not a commodity that can be passed from hand to hand, but can only be awakened. (3)
Fables often make use of the supernatural. At the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the mountain reclaims the gold in a sudden burst of wind. Intemperance which is left to its own devices, the mountain seems to assert, is always corrected by its own unforeseen effects. Hence, Dobbs’ fate is sealed by his actions. What remains to be seen is just how his life will play out. Fate plays a central role in the film.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a colossal tragedy. There is at least one additional observer of human reality – beside the omniscient one that seems to hover over the tale – namely Howard, who is cognizant of Dobbs’ downfall. The story also has great bearing on the destiny that Howard assumes for himself. The viewer is invited to view a common human folly from a distance.
At the end of the film Howard is rewarded for his wisdom in several ways. He earns the respect of the village Indians for saving the young boy. Howard is offered a secure set of circumstances that he can enjoy for what he calls “the rest of my natural life.” He also earns Curtin’s (Tim Holt) respect and friendship. The tragedy is intensified in the manner that their lives and destinies become intertwined. Curtin does not appear to gain much from the adventure that he is thrust into. Actually, he almost dies when he is shot twice by a delusional Dobbs. His reward is a sober perspective on life. He admits that he is no worse off at the end of the journey than when he began.
In addition, the film ends on a note of hope that perhaps Curtin will find happiness, if not contentment, in delivering the closure that Cody’s (Bruce Bennett) widow will be searching for. Cody’s death also contributes to the story. His struggle to create a better life for his wife and small child results in disaster. Fate does not always supply happy endings.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a moral tale that is told from the perspective of a quasi-omniscient and detached observer of cosmic human follies who takes in the action prima facie. The impact of the story on the viewer’s imagination depends, as is the case with other artistic forms, on the viewer.
This is a story told from the perspective of time and the ironic constitution of the former, as this relates to human existence. What is so daunting about Dobbs’ fate does not seem important, that is, until we attempt to make sense of it. How does Dobbs’ story play out in actual human existence? Because cinema employs a closed-ended logic, that is, a resolution, the viewer is afforded a propaedeutic for future action.
Huston achieves a beautiful demonstration of the power of fate in a condensed format. The essential problem of wisdom, as is equally true of truth, is that human reality is often antagonistic to these. Instead, their validity and worth as guides for human life are always proven in time, or what is the passage of time. The same thing occurs when Spencer Tracy tries to impart a moral lesson to a young Robert Wagner in The Mountain (Edward Dmytryk, 1956), as the latter helps himself to the valuables of the victims of an airplane crash.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre begins with Fred C. Dobbs asking passers-by for some spare change. He is down and out in the small Mexican town of Tampico — an American ex-patriot looking for a friendly face and a break. This scene is compelling because in light of what is to follow, one wonders, at the end of the film, whether his indigent condition has made him avaricious or if he has always suffered from this character flaw.
Early on in the film Dobbs elicits the viewer’s sympathy, while later, only our pity. However, despite what we know of Dobbs, early in the film we remain curious about his personality. He is an engaging character. The world contains many Fred C. Dobbs.
From the opening segment of the film, when we see Dobbs begging for money from a wealthy passer-by played by John Huston, we question whether Dobbs is avaricious, lazy or merely wallowing in his misery. He buys a box of cigarettes with the money that the stranger gives him. However, after the two men have met a third time on the street, Huston tells him, “From now on you’re going to have to make your way through life without me.” Dobbs then gets a haircut and shave with the money that he receives from the stranger.
The next significant scene is one where we find Dobbs in a tavern and a small boy persuading him to buy a lottery ticket. Dobbs is not interested. He has just ripped up the last lottery ticket he bought. He eventually buys a ticket from the boy.
The turning point in the film comes about when Dobbs finds temporary work. When he asks a man in a bar for money the man is quick to answer, “I won’t give you a red cent. If you wonna make some money I’ll give you a job.”
While working for Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane) building a derrick, Dobbs meets a fellow drifter named Bob Curtin. After about two weeks of working for this man, they are brought back to the mainland on a ferry. McCormick tells them that he can’t pay them because he has no money. He tells them that he will pay them later. One day, as they sit in a town square they see McCormick, well dressed, with a lady in his arm. They confront him, and McCormick invites them to a bar to buy them a drink. There, a fight ensues and McCormick comes out the loser. In an honest gesture, they only take the three hundred dollars that they are owed and return McCormick his wallet, leaving the rest of the man’s money.
The action/adventure sequences in the film explore the internal condition of the characters: how they think, how they view the world, and their emotional and spiritual state. No scene serves a gratuitous purpose. The fight scene with McCormick is a precursor to the avarice that we witness in Dobbs later on in the film. The cathartic importance of these scenes is not that men can harden with unfavourable circumstances, but that Dobbs does not know how to internalize these events. Curtin, who accompanies Dobbs throughout most of the film, reacts differently.
In addition, consideration must also be given to Cody’s fate. Cody, a loner engaged in the stringent pursuit of a better life for his family, moves in the shadow of murderers. His fate is tied to the fate of the others.
Dobbs and Curtin rent a cot for fifty cents per night, where they meet Howard, a fast talking, old prospector who delivers a powerful monologue on the value of gold and human nature. Howard tells them that they can get $5,000 worth of gold from the nearby mountains. Howard explains: “The price of gold is worth what it is because of the human labour that went into getting it.” This dialogue, which is essentially a monologue in its intensity, can easily rival Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy because of its multi-faceted probing of human reality. It is almost as if Howard is talking to himself and the other two characters are privy to his insight.
Howard warns them that they will want more gold than they can carry down from the mountain. Howard continues: “As long as there’s no find the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.” The two men are mesmerized by the possibilities. This exchange is significant because it foreshadows the direction of the drama that is to follow. More importantly, it serves as the beginning of a lesson, a moral-of-the-story.
This is the point in the film when we realize that Howard is entertaining a wager with the viewer as to the nature of man. He is not interested in the gold per se, but rather in witnessing the transformation that some men undergo. John Huston’s direction in effect employs what the ancient Greeks called a “prolepsis,” that is, an innate anticipation of events that takes place without a rational effort on behalf of the subject. Howard tells the two future prospectors, “I’ve never known a prospector who died rich. That’s what gold does to a man’s soul.” Howard challenges the two men to disclose their genuine selves. At first, Dobbs and Curtin don’t think too much of him.
Interestingly, while Howard tries to tell them about the inherent weaknesses in human nature, the two men only manage to hear how much gold they can get. Howard goes on with his tease, “Prospecting is only good when you have a partner, but a partner can cause you to get killed. Alone is best, but you have to have a stomach for loneliness. Men are friends until they find the gold.” Are you two up to the task? he seems to ask them. This scene encapsulates the overall theme and meaning of the film. Howard is not avaricious, yet he has been a prospector for a very long time. He does not personally care for gold, but is willing to guide the other two to the mountain.
Howard’s incessant talk about gold reverberates in Curtin’s and Dobb’s heads. This leads to a prophetic conversation between the two:
Dobbs: “Do you believe what that old man that was doing all the talking at the Oso Negro said the other night about gold changing a man’s soul so he ain’t the same kind of a guy that he was before finding it?”
Curtin: “I guess that depends on the man.”
Dobbs: “That’s exactly what I say. Gold doesn’t carry any curse with it. It depends if the guy that finds it is the right guy. Gold can be as much of a blessing as a curse.”
The trek up the mountain embodies a kind of moral cleansing for Howard. What are we to make of this simple yet wise character that appears on the scene out of nowhere? Surely, he is atypical of one who seeks riches. In Howard, we have the key to the meaning of the story. He embodies the perennial point and purpose of all Aesopian tales: No matter how much advice one offers, fools will still rush into things. Howard’s character acts out the part of a wager, a jest. He seems to be betting on the judgment that his wisdom is sound and thus wants to prove it. Howard acts as a sort of neutral narrator of the tale in that he is certain of what is going to take place, but he is not capable of stopping it. In the subsequent scenes of avarice, infighting, mistrust, and cynicism we witness Howard intently looking on, as vindicating his wisdom all along. From the look on his face, he enjoys the other two jostling for the gold. Howard’s countenance and well-placed words are indicative of his anticipation of a total moral collapse in Dobbs’ and Curtin’s makeshift friendship.
Three weeks after purchasing his ticket, Dobbs wins the lottery. The three men pool their money together and buy the equipment needed for the trek and set out for the mountain. When they shake hands in a show of partnership, the old man looks on in curious anticipation. This is significant because Howard tells them that prospecting costs a lot of money. Howard tells them that the gold can’t just be ripped out of the mountain with one’s own hands. He tells them that they need equipment. This equipment will cost them money. Dobbs and his companion are young men, but they are nowhere as tough as the old man, who is constantly seen climbing ahead of them. The old man’s toughness is mental, not necessarily physical. This is John Huston’s manner of stating that wisdom is much more valuable than youth and physical strength.
Howard’s mental and spiritual resources allow him to endure the many difficulties that the other two men can hardly accommodate. Given the disparity between Howard’s age and that of Dobbs and Curtin, these scenes of physical travail can only be interpreted as a spiritual prowess that Howard possesses. Dobbs and Curtin are surprised by Howard’s stamina. “The old man is tough. He’s part goat, part camel,” they utter, but Dobbs never stops to think what makes the old man so tough. As they ascend the mountain, Dobbs is vexed by Howard’s stamina. He says: “Hey, if there was gold in those mountains how long would it have been there. Millions and millions of years. What’s our hurry? A couple days more or less ain’t going to make any difference.” This is merely a roundabout way of not admitting that he is fatigued. Also significant in the action scenes is the moral condition of the two men. This is especially exaggerated in Dobbs’ character. Dobbs’ will is defined by exhorting minimum effort to achieve the greatest gain.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre interweaves the clash of physical exertion and a strong will in a manner that goes a long way to point out the import of the inner workings of man. Bernard Travern (1882–1969) wrote Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. The novel, like most of his other works: Bridge in the Jungle (1971); Ship of the Dead (1959); Rebellion of the Hanged (1954), are essentially action/adventure tales.
When a sand storm paralyzes their progress, Howard is the only one that has any clear understanding of what is taking place. A northern, Howard informs them. Dobbs’ violence begins when he becomes exhausted and attempts to hit Howard with a rock. “Leave him alone,” Curtin tells Dobbs. “Can’t you see the old man’s nuts?” Howard rebuttals, “Nuts. Nuts, am I? Let me tell you something, my two fine bedfellows. You’re so dumb there’s nothing to compare you with. You’re dumber than the dumbest jackass.” Howard then breaks out into a mocking dance as he continues, “You’re so dumb you don’t even see the riches you’re standing on with your own feet.” They finally find gold.
Part of Howard’s charm as a character is his ability to tell the truth while not moralizing. In a very prophetic moment, Howard tells Dobbs some essential truths while talking about gold. Howard says: “You know, gold ain’t like stone in a river bed; it don’t cry out until you pick it up.” This could easily apply to truth and wisdom. He continues: “You’re learning. Pretty soon I won’t be able to tell you a thing,” after he tells Dobbs how they are going to hide the gold from each other. Dobbs objects, “What a dirty, filthy mind you have.” Howard seems to be way ahead of the game when he answers: “Oh, no. Not dirty. Not dirty, baby. Only I know what kind of idea even supposedly decent people get when gold is at stake.” Howard is quick to cite the differences between being trustworthy and honest. He considers himself trustworthy because he is old and slow and can’t easily run away from the two younger men. Whether Howard knows more than he is letting on is a matter for speculation, but in telling them this, he is suggesting that he understands just how they think.
The problems begin shortly after the initial elation of finding gold has subsided. Dobbs, out of mistrust, wants to split the proceeds. At this point the old man gives them a speech about what honesty is and what gold does to people. This is the second major turning point in the story, given that now we begin to see that the old man is right. When asked how he will spend his money, the old man offers an unassuming reply: “I’m going to spend my time reading comic books and adventure stories.” Dobbs’ goes out in the middle of the night to check on his gold. Dobbs’ mistrust becomes pathological when Howard asks him to go down the mountain to the village to buy some materials. He objects.
Next we see Dobb’s paranoia manifesting itself as Curtin stumbles into his gold while looking for a gila monster under a rock. Dobbs points his gun at his partner. It is Curtin who goes to the village to buy provisions, instead. There he meets another American who also wants to dig for gold. The man follows Curtin back to the camp, where he is not welcomed. Dobbs is the first one to let the man know this. The stranger wants a percentage of the gold. But when they are about to “bump up” the stranger, a band of bandits is seen riding up the mountain toward their camp. Cody, the stranger, helps them to ward off the bandits in the gun battle that ensues. Cody is killed. As they look through his pockets to find out who he is, they find a letter from his wife telling him that she and their son miss him dearly.
The three men decide to leave the mountain after they have secured about $35,000 worth in gold each. At this point, Howard, in a mystical vein, tells them that it will take about another week to “break down the mine and put the mountain back in shape.” Dobbs finds this idea startling and asks, “Do what to the mountain?” Howard then gives them a lecture on the nature of gratitude: “Make her appear as she was before we came. We wounded this mountain and it’s our duty to close that wound. It’s the least we could do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s shown us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.” Again, the scope of Howard’s understanding transcends what he lets the other two men know. His decision to clean up the site of their digging for gold can be viewed as simple superstition. But this would be an oversimplification, given Howard’s character and the scenes of respect and veneration that he receives from the Indians for saving the child.
Howard reminds us of Charmides telling Socrates, “For I would almost say that self-knowledge is the very essence of temperance, and in this I agree with him who dedicated the inscription ‘know thyself!’ at Delphi.” (4)
But right when they are about to leave, some Indians come from the village to seek help for a dying boy. This can be explained as coincidence, but it is also consistent with the idea that good will is repaid in very vexing and unexpected ways. Howard says at one point: “You start out to tell yourself you’ll be satisfied with twenty-five thousand handsome smackers worth of it. After months of sweatin’ yourself dizzy and growing short on provisions and finding nothing, you finally come down fifteen thousand and then ten, finally you say, ‘Lord, let me just find five thousand dollars worth and never ask for anything more the rest of my life.” After the old man saves the boy’s life, the Indians come back to make Howard their guest of honour. The child’s father feels that he must pay his debt, otherwise all of the sacred spirits will become upset. This is consistent with Howard’s loyalty to the mountain. Dobbs, on the other hand, cannot make more out of this episode than to tell Howard, “Remember this next time you try to do a good deed,” as Howard goes away with the Indians. They promise to meet the old man two weeks later in Durango. Dobbs becomes suspicious and paranoid of his partner as they head to Durango alone without the old man.
A powerful scene ensues when Curtin has to constantly watch Dobbs. Dobbs’ paranoia becomes pronounced on their first night alone, when he attempts to kill Curtin. Dobbs shoots Curtin during the second night, off camera. When he goes to sleep, leaving Curtin for dead, he begins to reflect on the nature of conscience. “Conscience?” he questions. “What is it anyway? If we don’t have a conscience, I won’t worry.” Dobbs prescribes to the view that ignorance is bliss. The next morning when he is going to bury Curtin, he breaks out into a monologue about the dead man’s eyes being open. He begins to blame the dead man for bringing about his own demise.
Dobbs’ eyes become the central attraction of the scenes that follow. He sweats, walks around aimlessly, and talks to himself like a man who needs some convincing. His eyes tell a tale of repentance, of understanding what he can’t will himself to do. This is the first time in the film that we see conscience eating away at Dobbs, like a tormented soul.
Dobbs goes into his venerable conscience soliloquy, “What if his eyes are open, looking at me?” John Huston does a marvelous job of bringing the viewer into Dobbs’ head. The soliloquy is a particularly effective device in this instance given its non-dramatic, personal, and claustrophobic qualities. What we get instead is qualified, rationalized behavior that struggles to attain genuine justification for its motives. He goes back in the morning to bury Curtin but Curtin is not there. Dobbs searches for the wounded man in the surrounding area. Then he gets a brilliant idea. He convinces himself that perhaps a “tiger” took the dead man. “I got it. A tiger. Ah, yeah, that’s it. A tiger must have dragged him off to his land,” he tells himself. And then, in the manner characteristic of those who shy away from personal responsibility at all cost, he goes on, “Pretty soon not even the bones will be left to tell his story. Done as if by order.” He is happy to see that nature is on his side, thus assuaging the weight of his heavy conscience.
Howard is seen enjoying himself in a kind of Shangri-La, promise land of rest, food, drink, and women in the Indian village. He is revered as a medicine man for saving the life of the boy. The Indians inform him that Curtin has been found half dead. Howard and some Indians go out to find Dobbs, but poetic justice has already taken care of him.
The rest of the film involves a search for Dobbs on behalf of Howard, Curtin and several Indians who saved him. Retribution is the call of the day now, as some bandits kill Dobbs and steal his gold. They store the gold in some ruins outside of town, only to be captured by the townspeople while trying to sell Dobbs’ mules. Later the three bandits are executed.
The last sequence of the film entertains what seems to be the perspective of the mountain itself. Howard and Curtin go to retrieve the bags of gold. As the search party arrives on the site where the gold has been hidden, a sudden windstorm develops, blowing all the gold out of the bags and back into the mountain.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a brazen look at human life that avoids a trite climax. The film captures the essence of avarice without making a political statement of any sort. What we have here is a metaphysical rendering of human destructiveness and how this manifests itself in the physical world. I suppose that what John Huston has attempted to portray is akin to Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In other words, Huston has, in my estimation, avarice itself searching for a manner to tell a story.
The final episode has Howard breaking out into frantic laughter. He says, “Laugh Curtin old boy this is a great joke played on us by the lord, fate, nature or whatever you prefer. But, who or whatever played it had a sense of humor. The gold has gone back to where we found it.” The fable as allegory comes full circle when those involved reach the understanding that human existence possesses an underlying structure that must be respected.
John Huston’s direction does a marvelous job of effacing any sense of strenuous moralizing. Cinema achieves this best when it becomes so transparent that it does not become bogged down by its own medium. Cinema always places us in a given arena, while, depending on our sensibility, we can incorporate its meaning in our own lives. Ernst Cassirer reminds us of this when he writes in An Essay on Man: “Every work of art has an intuitive structure, and that means a character of rationality. Every single element must be felt as part of a comprehensive whole.” (5)
- Havelock Ellis. The Dance of Life. New York: Random House, 1929, p.265.
- The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Eds). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 99. Benjamin Jowett, who translated the Charmides in this edition writes about the Greek word Sophrosyne in relation to arrogance: “Sophrosyne was the exact opposite. It meant accepting the bounds which excellence lays down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.”
- Karl Jaspers. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The ParadigmaticIndividuals. Translated by Ralph Manheim. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990, p. 8.
- The Collected Dialogues of Plato, p. 110.
- Ernst Cassirer. An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of HumanCulture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, p. 167.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a 1948 Americandramaticadventurous neo-western written and directed by John Huston. It is a feature film adaptation of B. Traven's 1927 novel of the same name, about two financially desperate Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), who in the 1920s join old-timer Howard (Walter Huston, the director's father) in Mexico to prospect for gold.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood films to be filmed on location outside the United States (in the state of Durango and street scenes in Tampico, Mexico), although many scenes were filmed back in the studio and elsewhere in the US. The film is quite faithful to the source novel. In 1990, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In 1925 in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), two unemployed American drifters survive by bumming for spare change. They are recruited by an American labor contractor, Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), as roughnecks to construct oil rigs for $8-a-day. When the project is completed, McCormick skips out before paying the men.
Returning to Tampico, the two vagrants encounter the grizzled prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flophouse. The loquacious and penniless ex-miner holds forth on the virtues of gold prospecting and the perils of striking it rich. The two younger men feel the lure of gold and contemplate its risks.
Dobbs and Curtin run into McCormick at a cantina, and after a desperate bar fight, they collect their back wages in cash. When Dobbs wins a small jackpot in the lottery, he pools his funds with Curtin and Howard to finance a gold prospecting journey to Mexico interior.
Departing from Tampico by rail, the threesome help to repulse a bandit attack. Dobbs exchanges gunfire with his future nemesis, the Mexican outlaw leader Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya). North of Durango the party is outfitted with gear and pack animals and begin their ascent into the remote Sierra Madre mountains. Howard proves to be the hardiest and most knowledgeable, outstripping the younger men in his physical endurance and wisdom. After several days of arduous travel, Howard’s keen eye recognizes that the terrain is laden with gold. He dances a jig to celebrate their good luck, to the dismay of his two comrades.
The men commence the exhausting process of extracting the riches, living and working in the harshest and primitive conditions. In time, they amass a fortune in placer gold. As the gold piles up, fear and suspicion take hold of each man. Dobbs is particularly susceptible and begins to lose his sanity to paranoia. The men agree to divide the gold dust so as to jealously conceal the whereabouts of their shares.
Curtin, while on a resupply trip to Durango, is spotted making purchases by an Texas fortune hunter named Cody (Bruce Bennett). The Texan guesses the significance of Curtin’s aloofness, and trails him secretly back to the encampment. When he confronts them, the three claim holders tell the intruder they are merely hunters. Cody dismisses the lie, and boldly proposes to join their outfit to share in any future takings from the unregistered claim. Howard, Curtin and Dobbs, each more or less in thrall to the gold, hold a private counsel and vote to kill the newcomer. As they announce their verdict, pistols in hand, Gold Hat and his bandits arrive on the scene. They claim to be Federales and attempt to barter for firearms. After a tense vocal exchange regarding proof, a gunfight with the bandits ensues, in which Cody is killed. A genuine troop of Federales suddenly appears and pursues Gold Hat and his gang as they flee the encampment. The three prospectors examine the personal effects of the dead Cody. A letter he carries from a loving wife reveals that his motivations were to provide for his family.
Howard is called away to assist local villagers to save the life of a seriously ill little boy. When the boy recovers, the next day, the villagers insist that Howard return to the village to be honored and will not take no for an answer. Howard leaves his goods with Dobbs and Curtin and says he will meet them later. Dobbs, whose paranoia continues, and Curtin constantly argue, until one night when Curtin falls asleep, Dobbs holds him at gunpoint, takes him behind the camp, shoots him, grabs all three shares of the gold, and leaves him for dead. However, the wounded Curtin survives and manages to crawl away during the night.
Nearly dying of thirst, Dobbs is ambushed at a waterhole by Gold Hat and his accomplices. Alone, and half mad, he is no match for the bandits who brutally murder him. In their ignorance, the bandits believe Dobbs' bags of gold dust are merely filled with sand, and they scatter the precious metal to the winds, taking only his burros and supplies. Meanwhile, Curtin is discovered by indios and taken to Howard's village, where he recovers.
Gold Hat's gang try to sell the packing donkeys in town, but a child recognizes the branding mark on the donkeys (and Dobbs' clothes, which the bandits are wearing) and reports them to the authorities. The bandits are captured and summarily executed by the Federales.
Howard and Curtin, arriving back in Durango in a dust storm, reclaim their pack animals, only to find the severed and empty gold sacks. At first shaken by the loss, Howard, then Curtin, grasp the immense irony of their circumstances, and both share peals of laughter. They part ways, Howard returning to the indio village, where the natives have offered him a permanent home and position of honor, and Curtin returning home to the United States, where he will seek out the Cody's widow in the peach orchards of Texas.
Director John Huston first read the novel by B. Traven in 1935 and had always thought the material would make a great movie with his father in the main role. Based on a 19th-century ballad by a German poet, Traven's book reminded Huston of his own adventures in the Mexican cavalry. After a smashing success with his directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, Huston started to work on the project. The studio had George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield in mind for the three main roles, but then World War II intervened. While Huston was in the war filming documentaries, Robert Rossen had worked on an adaptation of the novel, but it was left unfinished at the time Huston was brought on board, and differed significantly from the novel.
Vincent Sherman was all set to direct a version of the story during the WWII years until his script fell foul of the Breen office for being derogatory towards Mexicans.
By the time Huston came back from making several documentaries for the war effort, Humphrey Bogart had become Warner Brothers' biggest star. When Bogart first got wind of the fact that Huston might be making a film of the B. Traven novel, he immediately started badgering Huston for a part. Bogart was given the main role of Fred C. Dobbs. Prior to filming, Humphrey Bogart encountered a critic while leaving a New York nightclub. "Wait till you see me in my next picture," he said, "I play the worst shit you ever saw".
Traven initially disagreed with Huston's decision to cast his father, Walter Huston, as Howard. He had preferred Lewis Stone, but eventually came to agree with Huston's choice.
Walter Huston himself also questioned his son's choice. He still saw himself as a leading man and was not keen on being cast in a supporting role. However, his son was able to convince him to accept, and also persuaded him to play the part without his dentures for the sake of reality. John Huston rated his father's performance as the finest piece of acting in any of his films. On seeing the depth of Walter Huston's performance, Humphrey Bogart famously said. "One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder."
Huston originally wanted to cast Ronald Reagan as James Cody. Jack L. Warner instead insisted on casting Reagan for another film. Bruce Bennett was eventually cast in the role.
A few notable uncredited actors appear in the film. In an opening cameo, director John Huston is pestered for money by Bogart's character. The scene was directed by Bogart himself. Actor Robert Blake also appears as a young boy selling lottery tickets.
A photograph included in the documentary accompanying the DVD release shows Sheridan in streetwalker costume, with Bogart and Huston on the set. Many film-history sources credit Sheridan for the part.
Co-star Tim Holt's father, Jack Holt, a star of silent and early sound Westerns and action films, makes a one-line appearance at the beginning of the film as one of the men down on their luck.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood films to be filmed on location outside the United States (in the state of Durango and street scenes in Tampico, Mexico), although many scenes were filmed back in the studio and elsewhere in the US. Filming took five and a half months to shoot.
The first scene in the film with Bogart and Holt was the first to be shot. The opening scenes, filmed in longshot on the Plaza de la Libertad in Tampico, show contemporary (i.e. of the 1940s) cars and buses, even though the story opens in 1925, as evidenced by the lottery number's poster.
Just as Huston was starting to shoot scenes in Tampico, Mexico, the production was shut down inexplicably by the local government. The cast and crew were at a complete loss to understand why, since the residents and government of Tampico had been so generous in days past. It turns out that a local newspaper printed a false story that accused the filmmakers of making a production that was unflattering to Mexico.
Huston soon found out why the newspaper skewered him and his production. When you wanted to do anything in Tampico, it was customary to slide a little money toward the editor of the newspaper, something the crew failed to do. Fortunately, two of Huston's associates, Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias, went to bat for the director with the President of Mexico. The libellous accusations were dropped, and a few weeks later, the editor of the newspaper was caught in the wrong bed and shot dead by a jealous husband.
Most of the Mexican extras were paid 10 pesos a day which was the equivalent of $2.00, a considerable amount for an impoverished region at the time.
There were scenes in which Walter Huston had to speak fluent Spanish, a language he did not know off camera. To fill this need, John Huston hired a Mexican to record the lines, and then the elder Huston memorized them so well that many assumed he knew the language like a native. As with most of the Mexican actors selected from the local population, Alfonso Bedoya's heavily accented pronunciation of English proved to be a bit of a problem. Example: "horseback" came out as "whore's back". Bogart only knew two Spanish words, "Dos Equis", a Mexican beer.
The fight scene in the cantina took five days to shoot. During the shooting of the entire film, John Huston pulled pranks on Bennett, Bedoya (along with Bogart) and Bogart himself.
While most of the film was shot in Mexico, Jack L. Warner had the unit return to Hollywood when the budget started to exceed three million dollars.
Though the daily rushes impressed Warner Bros., Jack L. Warner, he nearly went berserk with the weekly expenditures. After viewing one scene, Warner threw up his hands and shouted to Blanke, "Yeah, they're looking for gold all right – mine!" During another screening of rushes, Warner watched Dobbs stumble along in the desert for water. Warner jumped up in the middle of the scene and shouted to a gaggle of executives, "If that s.o.b. doesn't find water soon I'll go broke!"
Warner had reason to be upset. John Huston and Blanke led him to believe that the film would be an easy picture to make and that they would be in and out of Mexico in a matter of weeks. Because Warner was notorious for not actually reading scripts, he assumed the film was a B-movie Western. As the full extent of Huston's plans became apparent, Warner nearly blew a gasket. He was especially unhappy with the way the film ended, arguing that audiences wouldn't accept it. Ironically, Warner was correct, since the initial box office take was unimpressive. Yet the film was a huge critical success and, in its many re-releases, it more than earned back its original investment of $3 million.
As production dragged on, Bogart, who was an avid yachtsman, was starting to get increasingly anxious about missing the Honolulu Classic, the Catalina-to-Hawaii race in which he usually took part. Despite assurances from the studio that he would be wrapped on the picture by then, he started to constantly annoy Huston about whether he would be done in time. Eventually Huston had enough and grabbed Bogart by the nose and twisted hard. Bogart never again asked him to confirm when shooting was expected to be over.
The wind storm in the final scene was created by borrowing some jet engines from the Mexican Air Force. Traven was asked if he would like to visit the set during location shooting. He demurred, but said he would be sending an associate instead. The associate was actually Traven himself, using a pseudonym. It is debated if this is speculation or not.
Huston's original filmed depiction of Dobbs' death was more graphic – as it was in the book – than the one that eventually made it onto the screen. When Gold Hat strikes Dobbs with his machete, Dobbs is decapitated. Huston shot Dobbs' (fake) head rolling into the waterhole (a quick shot of Gold Hat's accomplices reacting to Dobbs' rolling head remains in the film, and in the very next shot one can see the water rippling where it rolled in). The 1948 censors would not allow that, so Huston camouflaged the cut shot with a repeat shot of Gold Hat striking Dobbs. Warner Bros' publicity department released a statement that Humphrey Bogart was "disappointed the scene couldn't be shown in all its graphic glory." Bogart's reaction was: "What's wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?"
John Huston's screenplay
Main article: Stinking badges
John Huston's adaptation of Traven's novel was altered to meet Hays Code regulations, which severely limited profanity in film. The original line from the novel was: "Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don't need badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damnedcabrónandchinga tu madre!" The dialogue as written for the film is:
- Gold Hat: "We are Federales ... you know, the mounted police."
- Dobbs: "If you're the police, where are your badges?"
- Gold Hat: "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"
Gold Hat's response as written by Huston – and delivered by Bedoya – has become famous, and is often misquoted as "We don't need no stinking badges!" In 2005, the quotation was chosen as No. 36 on the American Film Institute list, AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.
The film is often described as a story about the corrupting influence of greed. Film critic Roger Ebert expanded upon this idea, saying that "The movie has never really been about gold but about character."  In addition, reviewers have noted the importance not just of greed and gold, but also of nature and its desolateness as an influence on the actions of the men. However, the ability of the film to comment on human nature generally has been questioned, in view of the fact that Dobbs' character is so evidently flawed from the beginning.
According to Variety the film earned $2.3 million in the US in 1948.
Awards and honors
John Huston won the Academy Award for Best Director and Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1948 for his work on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Walter Huston, John Huston's father, also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film, the first father-son win. The film was nominated for the Best Picture award, but lost to Laurence Olivier's film adaptation of Hamlet.
In 1990, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was among the first 100 films to be selected.
Director Stanley Kubrick listed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as his 4th favorite film of all time in a 1963 edition of Cinema magazine. Director Sam Raimi ranked it as his favorite film of all time in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes and director Paul Thomas Anderson watched it at night before bed while writing his film There Will Be Blood.
- American Film Institute recognition
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has also cited the film as one of his personal favorites. A key scene from the film was emulated in "Buyout", the sixth episode of the series' fifth season.
- ^The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Filmsite Movie Review. AMC's FilmSite. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
- ^ abGamarekian, Barbara (October 19, 1990). "Library of Congress Adds 25 Titles to National Film Registry". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2009.
- ^Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Turner Classic Movies, 2003
- ^"Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The (1948)". classicfilmguide.com. 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-21.
- ^"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)". The New York Times. 1948.
- ^"Treasure of the Sierra Madre". rogerebert.com. 2003.
- ^ ab"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre". The Nation. 1948.
- ^"Top Grossers of 1948", Variety 5 January 1949 p 46
- ^Lynn Hirschberg (November 11, 2007). "The New Frontier's Man". The New York Times. Retrieved November 10, 2007.
- ^AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
- ^AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees